Public Health Victory in Rochester as Silver Lake Moves Beyond Coal

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Ray Schmitz and Joshua Low celebrate the vote to retire Rochester Public Utilities Silver Lake Coal Plant.

In a victory for clean energy and clean air, the Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) board voted unanimously today to retire the dirty Silver Lake coal plant by the end of 2015. The plant’s retirement is a major victory for Minnesota’s economy and public health, as reducing the number of coal-fired power plants will both curb harmful emissions and pave the way for clean air and clean jobs in Rochester. The RPU’s decision to retire the Silver Lake facility comes as the plant faces pressure for putting soot and mercury into Rochester’s air and failing to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air health safeguards. 


“This is part of a trend of victories for health and a clean energy future,” said Ray Schmitz, Rochester resident and Sierra Club member since 1972. “Dirty, old coal-fired power plants are no longer able to meet clean air safeguards and compete with clean energy sources like wind and energy efficiency.”


“As a community leader I care about the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of our community,” said Michael Wojcik, RPU board member. “This is a rare decision that can improve all three of these legs of sustainability. It is important to the health and financial well-being of Rochester families that the Rochester Public Utilities board makes the correct decisions for this facility.”


RPU’s Silver Lake facility is the latest in a string of 114 coal plants across the country to opt out of coal burning due to higher fuel costs and stronger health safeguards. Last year, Xcel Energy announced plans to stop burning coal at its Black Dog plant in Burnsville, MN and converted both its metro area coal plants – Minneapolis’s Riverside and St. Paul’s High Bridge – to natural gas in 2009. Dairyland Electric Coop announced retirements of three coal plants along the Mississippi River last month.


The cost to purchase coal to burn at Silver Lake is almost double Rochester Public Utility’s anticipated prices ($4.62 per mmBtu vs. $2.35 per mmBtu). The Silver Lake facility’s boilers have not been able to compete with natural gas and wind on the energy market and operated only 257 hours in 2011, compared to 16,665 hours in 2005. Despite its decreasing operation, the Silver Lake facility emitted dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide into the air in Rochester, putting residents at risk of asthma attacks, severe respiratory problems, lung disease and heart complications.


“This is very exciting news for Rochester families,” said Dr. Barbara Yawn, MD MSc, asthma expert and family physician at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester. “The decision to decommission the Silver Lake power plant meets both the health and economic needs of those living in and around our community.”


RPU faces less demand for energy than originally forecasted in part due to energy efficiency and conservation programs cutting more than 45 megawatts of projected energy needed over the past decade – the equivalent of the capacity at Silver Lake’s #4 coal boiler.


RPU will need to plan for new energy supply by 2030. Communities like San Antonio, TX are already demonstrating how smart investments can save ratepayers money while providing them with clean energy. CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal electric company, recently announced plans to build 400 MW of solar, and many utilities are considering expanding solar investments as the price of solar drops every year.


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